New Brass Singing Bowls: Antique singing bowls are always made from a bronze alloy of copper and tin, which is harder and more brittle than brass. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. It is softer and more malleable than bronze, and has a low melting point that makes it suitable for casting. Brass singing bowls are made by modern manufacturing processes, or by pouring molten alloy into sand molds and then machine-lathing them. Brass is a familiar metal that is easily identified by its normally bright golden ‘brassy’ colour and smooth shiny finish. Cheap bells and doorknobs are made from brass. Sometimes brass singing bowls are stained or decorated and etched with Tibetan symbols, mantras or Buddha images. Manufactured brass bowls are mono-tonal and easy to play. They have a clear bright sound and a long sustain when struck. They are usually quite small and marketed as Singing Bowls, Meditation Bowls or Buddha Bowls, and commercially packaged in boxes. They are inexpensive, prolific on the web, and sold in some Tibetan Buddhist outlets, and ethnic or New Age gift shops. They have NOTHING in common with genuine old or antique singing bowls.
New Bronze Singing Bowls: Traditional singing bowls are hand-forged in a bronze alloy comprising 80% copper and 20% tin. They are still being made in the traditional way in India and Nepal today, sometimes to exacting modern standards. They are mainly of the popular Thadobati, Manipuri or Jambati types with diameters typically ranging from 6 to 10 inches (15 – 25 cm). They are more expensive than brass bowls, and are readily available in the countless singing bowl shops in Kathmandu, and increasingly online. New Jambati bowls over 12 inches (30 cm) are sometimes made to order due to the high cost of labour (it takes a least 4 highly skilled men working in unison to form a singing bowl) and the expense of the raw materials. Custom-made bowls can be perfect pitch, and quite expensive, but not as costly as their antique equivalent. Most of these new bowls are laser etched with Tibetan Buddhist iconography, and some Western bowl dealers import them to sell to clients unable to afford genuine antique bowls of a comparable size. Some new bowls are ‘antiqued’ to look old and honest but inexperienced importers can be deliberately misled about a bowl’s provenance by unscrupulous salesmen, and then unintentionally pass on this misinformation to their unsuspecting customers in the West. These newly hand-beaten bowls may look beautiful and sound pitch-perfect, but I believe they cannot deliver the refined and multi-harmonic sound quality or benefits of genuine antique singing bowls.
Old Bronze Himalayan Singing Bowls: Old hand-forged singing bowls sit comfortably on the continuum between New hand-forged bowls and antique bowls. They are the halfway-house along the timeline and the mid-point in terms of quality; being a little heavier and thicker than modern bronze bowls but generally not such fine quality as antique ones. Many of these older bowls were made in the 1950s, 60s and 70s in response to the rapid rise in tourism to Nepal and the Himalayas, and the surge in interest in all things Eastern and spiritual, including singing bowls, yoga, meditation and Buddhism. Bronze singing bowls from this period are typically small to medium in size with diameters ranging from 4 to 8 inches (10 – 20 cm) and either plain or simply decorated with lines encircling the rim and some concentric circles in the centre of the basin. They are almost exclusively high-walled and flat-bottomed Thadobati bowls, or the shallow and round-bottomed Manipuri type. These bowls are unlikely to have served any sacred or ritual purpose, but being traditionally hand-forged they may still sing sweetly nonetheless. Many will have served a utilitarian purpose during their lifetime, as cups, food bowls, cooking pots and containers, and their condition and sound quality will vary considerably. These are the singing bowls that are wholesaled in India and Nepal by weight rather than sold by piece, and exported to the West. They account for almost all of the singing bowl on the market today. Earlier 20th century Thadobati, Manipuri and Jambati singing bowls have much in common with their antique ancestors, and consequently there is a greater margin of error when objectively estimating age. This is the point where personal experience counts…and the subjective feel and sound of a bowl comes into its own!
Genuine Antique Himalayan Bronze Singing Bowls: Antique singing bowls are always hand forged from a bronze alloy, never brass. They are always hand-beaten into shape, never cast. And they were NEVER decorated with etched or engraved Tibetan iconography or Buddhist imagery, although some may carry inscriptions. Unfortunately, some antique bowls have been ‘improved’ with the addition of new etchings to enhance their commercial attractiveness. They may look prettier or more interesting, but this treatment is always to the detriment of the bowl and its sound. Genuine antique singing bowls are usually superbly crafted, well balanced and proportional, and frequently have an individual subtlety of form that differentiates one bowl from another similar one. This is particularly noticeable when viewing bowls in profile. Rims are level, lips are finely forged, walls are of an even thickness, and there’s a consistency and regularity to the hammered surface both inside and out, including underneath. The bowl will sit level when placed on a flat surface. Decorative features such as concentric circles on the inside floor or grooving to the lip, if any, are usually incised with pinpoint accuracy. However, not all antique bowls are quite as refined, and some metal-smiths clearly struggled with inadequate resources or an inability to generate and maintain sufficient heat in their forge to bring the bronze alloy to a malleable temperature. This is particularly apparent in older and heavier extra-thick Thadobati bowls, some of which have slightly lumpy uneven walls and may even have some unwanted inclusions. Nonetheless they have a quality of sound that one seldom finds in thinner and more regular bowls. It’s not unknown for an interesting or valuable antique bowl in poor condition to be restored or refurbished before being offered for sale. Indeed, the majority on the market will have been cleaned by the dealers. Skillful and sensitive restoration amounts to little more than cleaning, stain removal, and polishing. But unfortunately some bowls are brutally refurbished in Kathmandu and elsewhere with mechanical grinders, wire brushes and lathes. The former, if done well, merely results in a clean and shiny antique bowl minus some of its life-story, while the latter all but destroys an ancient bowl’s character and its unique sound.
Physical Signs of Age: Antique singing bowls usually show clear signs of having been around for a long time. Many will have served multiple purposes over the years, ranging from the sacred to the mundane, usually both, and a degree of wear and tear will be evident. Some will have served as household vessels and been used and cleaned countless times, often with abrasive materials, resulting in a smooth and clean appearance around the rim and inside the basin. Others will have been handled and played so much that the rim’s playing edge will be rounded and smooth to the touch. Engraved lines and circles, sacred markings and inscriptions, if any, may be well worn down, and hammer marks from the forging process will be less in evidence, or even non-existent on the oldest bowls, particularly on the exterior wall and inside floor. You can expect to see some scratches, stains and blemishes, and even small dints. Some antique bowls, especially large Jambati, will have spidery surface fractures on the bottom and outer wall. These are not a problem if the sound is unaffected (the bowl will buzz when played if it is). Cracked bowls are also acceptable if the crack is superficial and doesn’t penetrate through to the other side. Many old bowls acquire a tarnish of grime or a patina to the outside that can either be left (my preference) or removed by cleaning. All these signs are a fair indication of age, but not necessarily antiquity, so it’s important to take all the other factors into account. Just occasionally one comes across an antique bowl in pristine or near perfect condition. This could be evidence that it has been well cared for during its lifetime and has perhaps played a sacred or ceremonial role…or it may simply have been mislaid long ago and has only recently come to light. Large bowls such as the Jambati and Ultabati are known to have been used for dry storage of grain and are occasionally found in an excellent state of preservation.
Sound and Resonance: Every bowl type has its own characteristic sound and acoustic range, but there is a quality to the tonality and resonance of an antique singing bowl that places it well apart from its modern day equivalent. Suffice it to say that its sonic qualities should be paramount when choosing a bowl. The most beautiful, sonorous, enduring and vibrant sounds only come from genuine antique singing bowls.
Character: Character is hard to define, but it’s often associated with maturity and old age. It’s a certain quality of uniqueness that singles someone or something out as being special or a one-off. It’s difficult to put your finger on but you know it when you see it, feel it, experience it! Antique singing bowls often have character, personality, and a certain gravitas that’s just not present in younger bowls. Look out for bowls that call out to be held and played…bowls that speak directly to your heart. All the antique singing bowls on this website have character and personality and are between 100 and 400 years old, a few may be older.
Finally: Please check out the links below for more useful information about genuine antique singing bowls.
for descriptions of the various types of antique singing bowl. Click here
to learn about inscribed antique singing bowls.